Home > Illinois basketball > Illinois at Penn State: Hard for Illini to overlook Nittany Lions due to history, Sparty upset

Illinois at Penn State: Hard for Illini to overlook Nittany Lions due to history, Sparty upset

No. 16 Illinois (13-3, 3-0 Big Ten) at Penn State (9-6, 2-2 Big Ten)

8 p.m. – Big Ten Network 

Looking back
The Nittany Lions have won four of the last seven games against the Illini, though Illinois won both contests last year. Four of the last six games have been decided by one point. The Illinois-Penn State matchups during that stretch have been bruisers, with the Illini’s 77-67 victory marking the only game point total to top 130 points. The Illini’s 38-33 loss to Penn State on Feb. 18, 2009, still lives on in infamy for its both teams’ inability to put a round object through a slightly larger circle.

“It’s just real close with us,” Illinois guard Demetri McCamey said. “I don’t know why it is, but the history speaks for itself. It’s always going to be a tough day that comes down to the last couple possessions.”

With the Illini offense out of its brief stone age, don’t expect a game in the 30s. Right, Demetri?

“I hope not,” McCamey said. “But at the same time if it’s 31-30 and we win, I’ll be happy.”

Added motivation

If their recent history against Penn State wasn’t enough of a warning, the Illini certainly took notice of the Nittany Lions’ 66-62 win over ranked Michigan State got the attention of an Illini team that’s earned a reputation to play down to the level of weaker opponents.

“I hope it got our guys’ attention,” Illini coach Bruce Weber said. “We’ve talked to our guys, I think it was seven teams in the top-25 lost last week. So welcome to conference play.”

“With them beating Michigan State, that gives us a chance to go out and take them as a very good team,” Illinois sophomore D.J. Richardson said. “Kind of like we did early in the year, we took UIC as a team that wasn’t as good. We thought we were just going to go into the game and beat them by like 20 or 30 points (Illinois lost 57-54). It’s a good thing that we saw Penn State beat Michigan State.”

More in the Battle

Despite losing shooter Chris Baab to transfer, this Penn State is  much better than last season’s version that relied solely on Talor Battle. Case in point, the senior guard shot 3-for-14 in Saturday’s upset of Michigan State and 5 of 14 in a win over Indiana. The Nittany Lions need Battle to perform but can compete without a 20-plus performance from the star because of the improved play of his supporting cast. Only Battle averaged double-digit points for PSU last year, but Jeff Brooks (13.7 points) and David Jackson (10.9) have picked up the slack this season.

“I think the other guys are just playing better which is important for their progress,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.

Still, slow down Battle – who averages 16 shots a game, 28.8 percent of Penn State’s total – and the Illini have a great chance to stay undefeated in the Big Ten. D.J. Richardson – who allowed Battle to score 29 points in two games last year – again draws the assignment on Battle.

“He has a different turbo,” Richardson said. “He has a third gear. Most players have one-two gear. You can turn it on and turn it off. But this guy has a real quick gear and he can also handle the ball and shoot. You have to stay on him and don’t give him no daylight.”

 

Matchup to watch: Mike Davis vs. Jeff Brooks  

No Illini’s game is dissected more than Mike Davis, so it’s surprising that the 6-foot-9 senior’s recent defensive efforts have gone unnoticed. After petering future NBA draft pick Jon Leuer into a 7 of 18 performance in a 69-61 win over Wisconsin, Davis and Bill Cole held John Shurna and Drew Crawford to 3 of 15 shooting in an 88-63 rout of Northwestern. Davis said tonight he’ll likely draw Brooks, a 6-foot-8, 215-pound athletic forward who is averaging 17.8 points and 6.8 rebounds through four Big Ten games.

Streaky shooting

Illinois is shooting 64.7 percent through three Big Ten games after setting a single-game school-record mark of 70.5 percent against Northwestern on Thursday. There’s no doubt that Illinois’ field-goal percentage will decrease.

“We’re not going to shoot like we did the other night all year, but I think we can be a 38 to 40 percent three-point shooting team and hopefully around 50 percent field goal team,” Weber said.

But the question remains, what if Illini struggle from the field? So far, the answer is: they lose. Illinois is 0-3 when it shoots 40 percent or less. To win on nights that they struggle from the field, the Illini players must attack the basket and get to the free-throw line. They’ve done better the last few games, averaging six more attempts from the charity stripe than their season average the last two games.

Prediction

Illinois 73, Penn State 64

This Illinois group has always struggled with success. But following last month’s disappointing loss to UIC, the Illini don’t seem as impressed with their three-game win streak and No. 16 ranking. Michigan State’s loss at the Jordan Center should give Illini fair warning about Penn State’s ability to pull off an upset. Plus, a win over the Nittany Lions would keep the Illini atop the conference standings heading into a difficult three-game stretch against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State. The Nittany Lions are improved, but the Illini’s depth and offensive firepower should be overwhelming.

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